Feeding the Future: Plantagon and the First Vertical Greenhouse - Earth Week


Photo courtesy of Plantagon, Illustration by Sweco.

Written By: Margaret Jacobi

Every century presents new challenges for humanity, but never before has the urgency for lifestyle change been as apparent as today. The environmental decline indicated by global warming research will not quell a population that is growing exponentially, creating evermore mouths to feed. Which begs the question, how can we sustainably feed this influx and try to maintain our planet?

Founder and CEO of the Swedish-American company Plantagon, Hans Hassle, is one of many trying to find a solution to this problem.

“They say that we grow already on 80 percent of the arable land that we have. We’re going to have 2 billion more people on the planet and 80 percent are going to live inside cities,” says Hassle. “For me personally, [Plantagon] was an opportunity to be part of building up an international global enterprise based on sound values and sustainable thinking.”

Hassle is referring to the United Nations’ projection that by 2050, the world will hold 9.2 billion people with nearly 80 percent residing in urban areas.

To start preparing for such a world, Hassle, who was recently named Swedish CEO of the year, and Plantagon have already broken ground on the world’s first vertical greenhouse in Linkoping, Sweden.

The building, which will tower 17 stories high, is expected to be finished in late 2013 or early 2014. It will be multi-functional and serve as a greenhouse, an office building, a veritable farmland, and a model for other buildings across the world.

“There is also a business-oriented reason for the design in Linkoping,” says Hassle. “If we were to build only a greenhouse on the same the footprint, then we wouldn’t get more food, because the growable area would be about the same, comparing to a façade system. To make the investment safer, if we can mix the greenhouse model with office spaces or where people can live, the investment is not so risky in the beginning for the new investors. In Linkoping, we don’t need to earn any money from the vegetables to make a good and sound business model, it will be made from the office spaces, which is important, of course.”

The produce yielded will ultimately become a source of profit for investors as well, but more in the long run, given how large the initial investment is. Hassle alluded to early stage agreements in Shanghai, Wuxi, Stuttgart, Barcelona, Stockholm, and Helsingborg.  One of the proposed projects in Shanghai, a façade system on the side of a hotel skyscraper, is estimated to grow food for as many as 80,000 people.

All of these projects rely on the same fundamental technology, a transportation helix conveyor system, which rotates all the greenhouse’s plants on a daily basis to provide optimal sun exposure.  Hassle says this technology could likely be installed in already constructed buildings as well.

Not only is the construction of the first vertical greenhouse of its kind a truly new endeavor, so is the way the project has come together. Both the development of vertical greenhouses and Plantagon, the company behind them, are clear examples of success in collaboration and progressive, innovative thinking.

The structure of the company embodies Hassle’s idea of a transparent company rooted in sound values. Plantagon is the blanket term for two separate entities, Plantagon International AB (the commercial driven side of the company) and the Plantagon Non-profit Association.

“The relationship is that we share the same objective. We work towards solving the food security problem and feeding the future cities,” says Hassle. “The company works with commercial tools and the non-profit side, they work with opinion building tools. They are doing exactly what most non-profits are doing, they’re driving opinion, awareness, and education on the issue while the company is trying to develop innovations and technology to solve a practical problem.”

Plantagon Non-profit Association owns 10 percent of the corporate side and elects half of the company’s board members. “The ambition is to find a balance between idealistic and commercial goals so that neither greed or not being competitive enough takes over either side of the organization,” says Hassle.

The dream of vertical farming has also been made a reality through Plantagon’s partnership with several large Swedish companies. These companies, such as Sweco, a consulting engineering firm, Saab, Combitech, and Tekniska Verken, have all worked together, contributing different technologies and ideas to conceptualize the idea of a vertical greenhouse. Hassle says Plantagon’s idea of this achievement could not be possible without such collaboration.  He claims that the biggest challenge is energy consumption, in order to make the building itself and the transportation of the plants sustainable. Without really advanced control systems and creative ways of utilizing resources for energy, sustainability of such a large structure might not be possible. The problem is not only limited amounts of space in a city, but also limited resources.

Despite their enthusiasm and passion for the project, Hassle and Plantagon do not feel that vertical greenhouses are the exclusive solution to create a more sustainable world. Instead, the remedy for the consequences of global warming will be found in the combination of several inventive ideas to combat the environmental problems the world faces.

“I think that it’s important to be open to different kinds of solutions,” says Hassle. “Vertical farming is one, rooftop farming is another, the thing that Bright Farms is doing when they grow food on grocery stores is another, and home growing is a fourth… I think one of the core things is to use areas that weren’t used before. If you can grow vertically, then you can grow leaning, flat; you can grow everywhere. I don’t think that we will see one solution; I think that we will see many, but I’m sure we will see much more green inside the city.”